Topic: Sports & Entertainment
Saturday Night Live has, not
for the first time in its three decade run, ignited an ethical controversy
with politically incorrect humor. Was SNL ensemble member Fred Armisons
impression of blind New York Governor David Paterson, including a wandering
eye and featuring slapstick disorientation, legitimate satire or, as
Paterson and advocates for the blind claimed, a cruel catalyst for discrimination
against the sight-challenged?
It is not an easy call, though
the opposing sides of the argument probably think it should be. And
it raises long-standing question about the balance between ethics and
Humor advocates say that comedy
must be able to reign free, and that jokes about our differences, weaknesses,
eccentricities and problems must not be censored in any way. It offends
you? Fine: dont laugh, dont applaud, dont watch. But dont
tell those who are amused that they have no right to laugh at the outrageous,
or those who create humor that their range must be limited by those
who dont appreciate the jokes, rather than expanded by those who
The critics look at the problem
from the opposite end of the telescope. Ridicule has long been a tool
of discrimination and oppression, reinforcing public bias and misconceptions.
When society is trying to improve itself, become more humane, just and
fair, humor based on stereotypes and ridicule can become a serious obstacle.
The civil rights movement had to battle offensive black stereotypes
in radio, TV and movies, like Steppin Fetchit (Feets dont fail
me now!) the slow-talking and slower moving Lightnin
in the Amos and Andy shows, and Prissy in Gone with the
Wind. The womens liberation movement was undermined by jokes
about women drivers and screen portrayals of brainless bimbos. Jews,
Hispanics, Gays, alcoholics, the mentally ill, people with speech impediments
and many other groups have been the butts of jokes and comedy routines
for decades, and some of them still are.
Earlier this year, a similar
controversy erupted over the Ben Stiller comedy Tropic Thunder
and its running gag about Stillers character portraying a full
retard—a movie character that made Forrest Gump look like nuclear
physicist by comparison.
Yes, I thought it was funny.
And I am aware that if my son had Downs Syndrome, I would probably
have not been so amused.
But that should not be the
standard. Ultimately, efforts to dictate acceptable humor become censorship
and thought control: they limit creativity and expression. They also
lead to inequities and, if we try to be fair, the ever-present slippery
slope. On what basis do we declare jokes about the blind intolerable
but continue to laugh at lampoons of seniors, when age discrimination
is a far more pervasive national problem that discrimination against
the blind? During the presidential campaign, David Letterman, Conan
OBrien, Jon Stewart and Jay Leno included one or more joke about
John McCains advanced age every night. They were every bit as disrespectful
and absurd as Armisens portrayal of Paterson as not being able to
find the camera; on what ground were the McCain gags acceptable but
the Paterson bits flagrantly over the line? Because everyone knows
the elderly can still do complex jobs? Because McCain is a white Republican
and Paterson is a black Democrat? Because jokes about the elderly are
more common, from Tim Conways shuffling geezer on The Carol Burnett
Show to Johnny Carsons Aunt Blabby on the old Tonight
Show? Because it is less of a burden to be old than to be blind?
Why was it offensive for Ben
Stiller to portray an imaginary, absurd moron, but acceptable for Saturday
Night Live to portray the President of the United States as an equally
ridiculous moron (in one 2000 skit, joyfully playing with a ball of
yarn, like a kitten)? If you really believe Bush is such a moron, isnt
this exactly the same as making fun of Patersons blindness? Or does
Bush have to not be a moron for it to be fair to portray him as one?
Is it only amusing the lampoon Bill Clinton as a sex addict if he is
a sex addict, or is it more acceptable if he doesnt suffer from this
AMA sanctioned disorder?
As always, once you start analyzing
what makes humor funny, it isnt, and figuring out what makes a joke
funny is as bewildering as determining what makes a gag offensive. And
that, I believe, gives us the way out of this problem.
Humor has to be acceptable
and ethical as long as it is funny to sufficient numbers of people,
with the additional requirement that it not be intended to cause
harm . The culture continues to adjust our sense of humor. By
its nature, humor will be either ahead of consensus or behind it, for
humor is a form of art. And there will always be segments of society,
sometimes quite large segments, that will find forms and topics of humor
objectionable. This is cant be avoided, unless we want to ban all
humor. There are individuals who object to classic Warner Brothers cartoons,
because they portray violence. Monty Python episodes that many find
hilarious mock speech impediments, diseases, mental illness, women,
gays, religion, ethnic groups and other nationalities, as well as the
British. The Simpsons, which has helped define American humor
since the 90s, was roundly (and wrongly) condemned as portraying
And then there is South
What we once considered outrageous
and even culturally dangerous humor decades and even mere years ago
has sometimes emerged as culturally vibrant and stimulating. Lenny Bruce
was arrested for material that Chris Rock would consider tepid. Do some
forms of humor make us coarser, less humane? That is a long-running
debate with no resolution in sight. What we do know is that laughter,
and the ability to laugh at ourselves, is an essential ingredient of
a sane and happy civilization, and that efforts to control through decree
and outrage what is regarded as funny have never been effective. What
moderates humor is cultural consensus and evolving standards of kindness
and respect. Those are reached by open discussion and experimentation,
combined with active ethical instincts.
For humor isnt humor if
no one laughs. Over a decade ago, SNL was hosted by singer Ray Charles,
and at the end of the show, there was a presentation by Michael ODonoghue,
the black humor specialist on the writing staff whose on-air character
was the dark wag Mr. Mike, whose idea of a comedy act was to give
a vivid imitation of Tony Orlando and Dawn having red hot spikes
plunged into their eyes. Mr. Mike told Charles that he had
a special gift
It was very tasteless, and
very funny. Was it funny because it was such an outrageous trick to
play on a blind man? Was it funny because everyone knew Charles was
in on the gag? (After the presentation, Charles made this clear
with his own joke: Now, what Mr. Mike doesn't know … is, at
the party, are going to be ten or twelve of the biggest black dudes
he's ever seen in his life. And they're gonna whoop him upside his head
and break every bone in his body. So please don't tell him!)
Would David Paterson have found it funny? Who knows?
What we do know is that if
people stopped laughing at such humor, it would disappear, because it
would be humor no longer. For decades, the slurred speech and shaky
walk of drunks were staples of comedy. Dudley Moore won an Oscar portraying
a funny alcoholic in Arthur. Then, suddenly, Americans didnt
find alcoholism funny any more. It wasnt because of scolding and
protests from activists. The change grew out of gradual awareness of
the astonishing number of alcoholics in our families and workplaces,
combined with the medical professions conviction that this is a terrible
illness rather than a moral failing. Did drunk jokes and drunk
routines vanish because someone declared them insensitive and wrong?
No. they vanished because they werent funny any more. Comedy is utilitarian
by nature: if it works, the end often justifies the means. But when
the laughs stop, all that is left was is the means. If such jokes dont
make people laugh, then the jokes must be malicious. Malicious
jokes are unethical.
The verdict on the SNL David
Paterson sketch has to be that it was within the broad range of ethical
humor, recognizing that satire, by its very nature, often has element
of criticism, meanness, unfairness and disrespect. All that can be acceptable,
if it is funny. But the fact that it was funny this week doesnt mean
it will be funny in ten years, or even next year. The culture, as always
Let us enumerate some basic
principles of comedy and ethics:
1. Humor, laughter, and comedy
are important, and necessary components of human existence and civilization.
As such, they deserve to be given great weight in any balancing exercise.
2. There are two varieties
of unethical joke: those that arent funny, and those with a malicious
3. Humor does not have to appeal
to a majority or even a substantial minority to justify itself, nor
is that fact that some or many may find a joke offensive sufficient
reason to censor or suppress it.
4. Humor, like all speech and
art, requires freedom to experiment, to test limits, and to be wrong.
Attempting to censor humor is more wrong than any attempts at humor
5. Humor, like all forms of
public speech, cannot claim immunity from accountability and responsibility.
Its just a joke! and Lighten up! should not end public
debate about whether a particular attempt at humor is, in fact, funny
or worth the pain it may inflict or the conduct it may encourage.
The governor and advocates
for the blind are right to raise the issue of whether such jokes are
worth the cost, and they have a right, and even a responsibility to
persuade the public that they shouldnt be laughing. Meanwhile, comics,
humorists and comedians are not breaking ethical principles by exploring
the frontiers of laughter.
Ray Charles would understand.